Can you imagine being a slave? Being considered by law the property of another human who determined everything about your work and living situation 24 hours a day must have been indescribably difficult for the enslaved African Americans for hundreds of years before the Civil War. Slave masters chose whether or not your family would remain intact or be separated at the slave market. They even got to decide if you could learn about God and worship Him freely. From our privileged vantage point imagining what this was like is pretty much impossible, but I think it’s important to try.
During the Civil War, many slaveholders moved West to avoid the fighting and, of course, they took their slaves with them. The slave industry in Texas was increasingly booming at the time. When the war ended on May 13, 1865, they hadn’t gotten the memo and surely didn’t want to. It took a whole month and six days for the proclamation of the end of slavery to arrive in Galveston, Texas, the last place to receive the news. Imagine that, not just how slow news moved before cell phones, but how the liberated must have felt to find out that they were free at last. What gratitude they must have had for the messengers and those who enforced the new reality. Some were children while others waited the bulk of their lives, but how sweet to realize what had been a lifelong dream of freedom. It would be another hundred years for their civil rights to be better granted and we still wait for true equal treatment, but June 19th was a critical point in our history towards truer equality and a more real freedom from the domination of others.
What if the government hadn’t proactively gone around the country with that proclamation of freedom? What if the Union Army won the war and just let the news spread naturally? I wonder how far the word would have spread and its meaning would have been realized? Likely not far at all because of the competing agendas that persisted. There are still romanticized fantasies of the “good old days” until today despite much education and legislation for the sake of better days ahead. Because this stubborn and sinful world is complex, the truth that sets us free, the declaration of that truth, and the experiential realization of that truth are not all simultaneous. Truth will always be true but the declaration of it can be slow and the realization of it in the midst of our world can be even slower.
That is why it is very good that the celebration of what we call Juneteenth started on June 19 in 1866 a year after the slaves were liberated. It actually began with churches. The celebration matters because it helps us to remember and to continue to declare the truth that each person is equally valuable, equally precious. I’m so glad Juneteenth has finally been recognized just this week as a federal holiday so the truth will keep marching on. Glory hallelujah!
Juneteenth reminds me of when Esther and Mordecai and their people banded together and won their freedom from their enemies who wanted to annihilate them. Rest came to the people, but not all at the same time. One group finished on the 13th and the other on the 14th of the month of Adar. They started celebrating Purim every year. The first day they celebrated in their yearly two-day celebration was the day the rural population also experienced victory and could start resting. Purim was then and still is celebrated on the 14th and 15th. The next time it will be observed is the 16th and 17th of March in case you want to join in the festivities!
The war for our freedom is decided as well. Jesus has won the victory over sin. We don’t have to live enslaved to that master anymore. God has set us free. Let us declare this truth with words and actions and lots of celebration even as we look forward to the full, worldwide experience of it when Jesus makes all things truly equal and new. But know this, the celebration can’t go worldwide until this good news does as Jesus told us in Matthew 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Whenever the gospel reaches someone, rest comes to them. I believe someone has received the good news of Jesus every day of the calendar year and thus every day is a day to celebrate our collective freedom. But what a different level of joy will come when everyone gets to experience it all together. You know the news, be sure to spread it, don’t just let it happen organically, this world has another agenda. Partner with God and make His freedom giving victory known to someone today.